The ‘Swarm’ Factor in the Arab-Israeli Conflict
by Giles Trendle
July 16th 2002
This article originally appeared on GlobalProfile (http://www.globalprofile.co.uk)
Although Israel is one of the most computer-literate societies in the world - with more Internet connections than in all 22 Arab countries combined - the advantage of the Internet revolution, in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, could well lie with the Palestinians.
Within cyberspace there is a growing network of individuals and groups coalescing around the key demands for an end to Israeli occupation of Arab territories and the creation of a Palestinian state. This network constitutes a ‘swarm‘, an Internet-related term referring to a global body of people with a common cause using the Internet to share information, mobilise support and coordinate direct action online and, at times, on the streets.
A swarm is made possible by the Internet revolution which allows people to share experiences and ideas and discover that others throughout the world are identifying the same issues. By interacting via the Internet with those others, the individual is no longer an isolated voice but part of a network of like-minded people - a swarm - which is dispersed and yet can constitute a significant grassroots protest movement.
The Seattle protests in 1999 which brought the World Trade Organisation to a halt demonstrated the ability of the swarm to converge on one place at a given time, take action - with dramatic impact - and then disperse, ready to reconverge again later. This converge-attack-disp
While pro-Israeli activists may be attempting to mobilise their own swarm in order to defend and enforce the existing balance of power in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the potential size and power of a pro-Palestinian swarm is worth considering.
The vast majority of the 280 million Arabs would be likely members of a pro-Palestinian swarm. Even though only 0.6% of the Arab world uses the Internet and only 1.2% have personal computers, according to a recent Economist survey, the Arab ‘swarm‘ need not rely on Internet connectivity as word can spread via the mosque, the media, the souq, and within families. The problem for an Arab swarm is that grassroots social activism not officially "approved" is uncommon in the Arab world. Arab governments may well fear the phenomenon of the swarm which cannot, by its amorphous nature, be manipulated and controlled.
The pro-Palestinian swarm takes on greater potential when other facts are considered. For example, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and, interestingly, in the USA where there are 10 million Muslims (compared to 6 million Jews). Also, the Palestinian cause is today a central issue for trade unionists, students, human rights advocates, environmentalists, peace activists and other lobby movements in the West. Even Jews are included in this swarm such as the liberal peace activists of Gush Shalom (www.gush-shalom.org) and those orthodox rabbis who renounce the modern-day state of Israel (www.jewsnotzionists.org).
This swarm may still be in its nascent stages and its impact may still appear negligible, yet modern information and communication technology has galvanised the potential of grassroots activism. A key element in this activism is in using the Internet as a tool for disseminating information to advocate a message and point of view to the existing swarm and onlookers. Individuals are setting up websites as alternative media sources to provide expanded and focused coverage on the Middle East. Such sites post what they believe are the best media reports to raise the awareness - and even the indignation - of the swarm with an alternative to the ‘reality‘ presented on the TV news bulletins.
Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net) is one such site which claims to challenge the "myth, distortion and spin in the media". The Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace (www.ccmep.org) is another, showing how some of the most active campaigners in the swarm are American citizens opposed to their country‘s Middle East policy.
Websites can provide an inexpensive and yet pervasive medium by which to address a global public with more direct control over the message. "It‘s our belief that the internet will have a major impact on the franchise of the media monopolies," says Ahmed Amr, editor of Nile Media (www.NileMedia.com), an independently operated cyber magazine aimed at redressing what it sees as a pro-Israeli slant in the mainstream media. "Economies of scale no longer apply to disseminating information. The economics of distributing information have been changed for ever."
The Internet has also proved a boon for groups otherwise vilified by the Western media. Hizbollah, the militant Islamic group in Lebanon, runs 11 websites (www.hizbollah.org). Hizbollah says its websites are an "information resource" in its propaganda struggle against Israel, a weapon to turn the balance of information and knowledge in its favour, given that the balance of conventional military forces is not.
It is not essential to run a website to be involved in disseminating information globally. Individuals can do as much on their personal computers. Abu Moujahed is a Palestinian in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut who runs a youth centre and organises visits to the camp by foreign students. He contributes to the Palestinian cause by forwarding to his network of 200-plus contacts throughout the world regular e-mails which are sent to him by a Palestinian NGO in the West Bank (www.rapprochement.org). The e-mails consist of on-the-ground reports from peace activists, eye-witnesses and journalists in the occupied territories. From the squalor of Shatila camp, Abu Moujahed represents one of the countless ‘nodes‘ in the global swarm network and highlights the ‘viral‘ nature by which information can be received and passed on endlessly throughout this network.
Another key element in today‘s new IT-enabled activism is in using the Internet to mobilise and coordinate the swarm into various forms of direct action on the streets. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign website (www.palestinecampaign.org) encourages supporters to attend demonstrations, talks and benefit concerts in the UK.
Pro-Palestinian websites not only muster parts of the swarm in local cities, but actively encourage supporters to turn up at the frontline itself. Individual activists are now travelling to the occupied territories to participate in direct action campaigns of non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Coordinating with local Palestinian NGO‘s, these ‘internationals‘, as they call themselves, are following the tactics of civil disobedience advocated by the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Besides protesting at Israeli army checkpoints, helping Palestinians repair bulldozed houses and escorting farmers and medical workers, the activists - Americans, Canadians and Europeans among others - also act as eye-witnesses and report their daily experiences at the barricades on websites and via e-mails which are fed back to the global swarm.
Direct action is not only about dramatic zealotry but can encompass quieter - perhaps more powerful - forms of protest. The Boycott Israeli Goods (www.boycottisraeligoods.org) urges the swarm to boycott businesses and shops cited as doing business with Israel. This tactic aims at tarnishing the corporate brand image and threatening the company‘s commercial profits in order to force it to divest from Israel.
UK high-street retailer Selfridges is one of the targets because it sells products originating from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories under the "Produce of Israel" label. The flagship store of Selfridges in London‘s Oxford Street has been regularly picketed each week by protestors.
Selfridges, in an official statement, denies any corporate or legal transgression since, it says, "there is no prohibition in place by the EU, nor any UK import prohibitions or restrictions in force, in relation to the import of products from the West Bank, Gaza strip, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights."
However, in July British supermarkets were told by The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that they must clearly identify produce on sale from the Jewish settlements, an instruction that angered Israeli diplomats and some businessmen, who believe that the decision is connected to the boycott campaign.
Beyond the economic boycott, a cultural boycott is also slowly assembling with calls from university professors in the UK and abroad for a moratorium on European research and academic collaboration with Israeli institutions until the Israeli government opens serious peace negotiations.
The true effectiveness of the swarm‘s boycott campaign - and indeed its whole activism campaign in general - remains difficult to calculate. Yet the proliferation of websites and the increase in demonstrations, boycott calls and civil disobedience in support of the Palestinians points to a growing momentum. At the recent May Day rally in London, placards supporting the Palestinian cause were much in evidence, pointing to the ideological affiliations being made with the anti-globalisation swarm.
As an heterogeneous network, the swarm is bound to contain ideological differences. Peace activists do not share the same extreme militancy as the suicide bombers, while for their part the militant Palestinian factions remain sceptical about the implications non-violent activism might have for their own armed resistance. Disagreement would also arise over whether the term ‘Israeli occupation‘ refers to land seized by Israel in the 1967 war or, as militant Palestinian groups such as Hamas would argue, to the whole of Israel proper. For now however, the swarm is focusing on the common ground of opposing the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Such global activism may at first seem dispersed, indistinct and insubstantial. Yet in today‘s information revolution, in which everyone has the ability to know what is happening in minute detail around the world - and in which there appears to be an increasing tendency to care about it - the swarm factor may yet come to play an important part in the Arab-Israeli conflict.